It’s probably not a surprise to anyone that’s read any of my reviews around comic stuff to know that I prefer one of the big two studios over the other. I wouldn’t call myself a Marvel fanboy (or a fanboy of anything, since that seems to assume you won’t criticize it), but I have over my life enjoyed the comics and characters Marvel has put out more than I have DC.
That’s not to say I don’t like anything DC… far from it. I absolutely loved Superman as a kid… the comics, the Christopher Reeve movies, even the old black-and-white TV show that I watched a on Nick at Night. Death of Superman is still probably in my Top 5 stories of all time; at one point I owned all of the comics leading up to it, and the aftermath comics. Notable only because I didn’t have a ton of money as a kid, and I was skipping meals to pick up some of those issues. But the superheroes of the House of Ideas…. Spider-man, the X-Men, Fantastic Four, etc., have always just related to me more.
There’s actually a reason for that which a friend articulated to me when contrasting DC and Marvel. DC is better at super heroes… Marvel is better at characters. Marvel has always focused on the character under the cape or the mask a lot more, and that ultimately tends to make for more interesting stories than a guy in tights punching another guy in tights while being watched by other guys in tights.
You can most certainly have both elements; Spider-man as a comic has always done that exceptionally well… but what goes on with the guy will be what audiences in general relate to. Why did Peter put on the mask to fight crime, and why does he go out and do it, again and again and again, despite the huge toll it has on him and his life? That’s a great story to read, and can be done so many ways, and in my opinion, it’s what Marvel has always been better at.
Of course, that’s the print side of things, and that’s sort of been suffering for a long time. We’re here to talk about the movie studios more than the comics (because I could be super critical about Marvel as a publisher lately, now on their eight reboot of the past four weeks or so). No matter which brand you prefer, or even if you don’t care and just watch the movies… it’s pretty clear which studio is “winning” right now.
A (sort of) Brief History of DC and Marvel Movies
It didn’t always used to be like this. For decades, Marvel properties were pretty notorious for being just awful. The live action Spider-man show from the 70s is a glorious monstrosity of awful. Comic book movies, in general, were seen as a joke or something for kids… at least until Superman came out in 1978 and made it clear that they could make money and be taken seriously.
Well, kinda. The 80s were pretty much two great Superman movies, one that isn’t good but gave us all nightmares to this day (seriously, that machine in III… *shudder*), and one that is awful but has some fun scenes (like the hair and bolt cutters). To be honest, I still hold 4 with a special place in my heart… I was eight when it came out and probably saw it in the theater six times. I just loved it (fun side fact, but the first movie I remember seeing in a movie theater was Supergirl).
On the Marvel side, the 80s gave us Howard the Duck and Dolph Lundgren’s The Punisher. For your own health and safety, do not ever watch them. The 80s were pretty bad in general for movies like this, or even genre films. It’s strange when you think about it, given that it was the decade that gave us a pair of Star Wars movies, Ghostbusters, and Back to the Future… but there are a hundred failures for each hit that probably should have worked better. It was another DC film, 1989’s Batman, that just reinvented what comic book movies could be… again.
It’s always funny when you look at the reception about certain actors or writers attached to films today and that the cries of the “fans” that want to protect their films has always been around. Michael Keaton was known as a comedic actor at the time, and people thought he was terrible for that part. Of course, if you’re a fan of Batman movies, you know history was going to repeat itself, and we got two great movies, one not great movie that thankfully didn’t give anyone nightmares (because it’s impossible to remember anything about it more than 30 minutes after watching it… but by god that Seal song will get stuck in your head for weeks when you catch just a line from it), and one that was the worst thing ever committed to film until Zach Snyder came along and said “hold my beer” to comic movie fans everywhere.
Marvel was a more interesting thing at the time… DC had clearly seen that there was a future in entertainment, but Marvel sort of went in on everything else. Multiple variant comics (that sounds familiar), trading cards, toys… and it all blew up in their face spectacularly in the fairly infamous bankruptcy case in the mid-90s. Only the gloriously awful Roger Corman “movie” for Fantastic Four was even in kind-of production then, and it was less a movie and more a shameless way to keep rights.
Bad management and taking on too much debt forced them to license out their characters for next to nothing… and plenty of studios came along and realized there was money to be had. Blade came out in 1998, and was actually based on work done by Marvel before, but they didn’t have full control of the project. Blade was initially a big hit, but that, along with the aforementioned bad Batman films, seemed to look like we were looking down again.
And then, Sony came out with X-Men and for the first time ever, we got to see exactly how badly Marvel missed the boat with their properties. X-Men, Blade II, and Spider-man all hit, and Marvel characters owned the box office, but Marvel did not. DC seems to have forgotten movie theaters entirely during this time, probably because they were too busy making some of the greatest cartoons of all time. Except Catwoman, I guess, but maybe they just wish they could forget about it.
It’s sort of telling that the early 2000s were defined by Marvel movies, but the ability of Marvel to influence them was so limited. X-Men was huge, but clearly marred by bad producers and execs after the second one; same with Spider-man; Fantastic Four was just bad, and Daredevil was just boring. But the whole of comic movies for that decade firmly rested with Marvel, even though they couldn’t exercise full creative (or financial) control over them.
The Rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
It was a couple of things that changed everything and brought us to where we are today; most of you probably know some of the details, but a lot of fans probably don’t. The first one was part of the licensing agreement coming in to play, where characters that weren’t used reverted back to Marvel to develop on their own. Iron Man, the Avengers, Thor, Captain America… there were a lot of them; but back then, both in comics and in popular culture, these were B-list characters at best.
The other was Kevin Feige being promoted to president of Marvel Studios. He’d been a producer on several of the previous movies, starting with Blade, and he’s got an absurdly deep knowledge of the source material. Iron Man, the first movie produced entirely by Marvel, had been in development dating back to the first Burton Batman movie, but just languished. Everything that eventually got released was fresh when Marvel got it back in 2005, and it made some huge bets and gambles. We obviously know how it turned out… making Marvel a powerhouse, launching the MCU, and making Robert Downey Jr. something other than a trivia question about 80s burnouts.
The run since then has been pretty incredible, when you look at it. One or more Marvel movies every year since; there have been a couple of duds (looking at you, Hulk), and opinions on where to rank the rest of them (Avengers: Age of Ultron is the next worse for me, Thor: The Dark World is the most boring)… but all of them have been wildly successful financially, and mostly successful critically.
More than that, it launched a new way of stitching together films that tell a bigger story. Sure, things like Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings were telling stories that extended across multiple films, but here we saw an entire shared universe, with connections and life between them. It was designed like that early on, after Iron Man was a hit, and it just simply worked. Each movie stands by itself, but is made better by the rest of them and how they tie together.
The Problem with the DC Universe
DC had sort of righted the ship in some ways before the MCU exploded all over them. Batman Begins came out in 2005 (I know, I was surprised too), and it is a genuinely great movie that got the fact that the most interesting thing about Batman isn’t Batman, it’s Bruce Wayne. The sequel, in 2008 (just a few months after Iron Man) gave us the absolute best portrayal of the Joker as a psychopath (as the more traditional comic version TAS still does it the best). The Dark Knight Rises… not so much (I’d rather watch Batman v Superman three times than watch that thing again).
They tried to relaunch Superman is the dull and weird Superman Returns (I’d make a joke about “return from what?” but that’d require me eventually going and looking up the plot for that movie), and it bombed badly. It’s not that Superman is a hard character to do… he’s not, you just have to understand him, and get that what makes him awesome is the contrast of being alien and yet so human. Justice League Unlimited told the story so well in the same year that Returns bombed…
“That man won’t quit as long as he can still draw a breath. None of my teammates will. Me? I’ve got a different problem. I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard, always taking constant care not to break something, to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control even for a moment, or someone could die. But you can take it, can’t you, big man? What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose and show you just how powerful I really am.”
Of course, if Hollywood is good at two things, it’s ripping one another off and missing the point. Nolan had exited the Batman series, which wasn’t all that bad of a thing, but Marvel had started their process of just printing money with their connected movies, and thus, the groundwork was laid for the DC Extended Universe the moment Nolan was out of the way.
To be clear, one of the big reasons that the MCU worked is that it built the universe and earned the trust of audiences. If they would have just started with The Avengers it would have probably been just as bad as Batman v Superman was. Marvel had gotten us invested in the characters we were seeing, and kept building. It was a movie that both managed to be great on its own and pay off the people that had been hitting theaters for years.
Actually, that’s only part of the problem for DC. Marvel did have one big advantage, and that was the nature of the characters they were using, and the fact that outside of comic book circles, they were not well known. Sure, people could likely identify Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man, but few could tell anything about them if they didn’t read the comics. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are all known quantities, so they have to work harder to get over it.
A good writer can take that challenge and use it; Wonder Woman is a great example of retelling a character people we know and making it work. But that’s the only example… the rest is them basically retelling an origin story that everyone has seen a few hundred times. Or, in the case of Batman v Superman, retelling it three different times (Man of Steel I think only told us the same thing twice, but it was repeated again in BvS).
Man of Steel was a wreck of a film that missed the point of the character entirely, starting with Pa Kent (I’m going to try and keep from going all red-eye rage over that… it still makes me so angry)… but it had the right idea. It just had the wrong director for it, and while there were good elements in the story, they were thrown away to make a good scene. MoS was basically wasted opportunity.
My opinions of just how bad BvS is are well documented on this site, and they just frame the problem with DC. It’s not actually grittiness, or sepia tones, or bad effects (thought it had all of those in spades). Logan showed us that grittiness can be used quite effectively in a movie. Wonder Woman showed that using the established style and contrasting it with colors was really effective, and the fight with Ares looked awful but still didn’t ruin the rest of the movie. The problem comes when you don’t offset those things by having great characters. MoS and BvS were both too concerned with trying to create scenes that look good on screencaps and posters than actually making a movie, and that’s why they ultimately fail.
Competing in a Crowded Space
The run that Marvel/Disney has been on lately is nothing short of astounding. The overcrowding and overexposure of Superhero movies has been “big news” for years now… and to some extent, has played out. But let’s look at some of the numbers around the past few big releases.
|Budget||Gross (Combined)||Ratings (Critic/Public)*|
|Captain America: Civil War||$250,000,000||$1,153,304,495||91% / 89%|
|Doctor Strange||$165,000,000||$677,541,920||90% / 86%|
|Guardians Vol. 2||$200,000,000||$863,197,744||84% / 88%|
|Spider-man: Homecoming||$175,000,000||$880,206,511||92% / 88%|
|Thor: Ragnarok||$180,000,000||$850,580,900||92% / 87%|
|Black Panther||$200,000,000||$934,928,076**||97% / 79%|
|Man of Steel||$225,000,000||$667,999,518||55% / 70%|
|Batman v Superman||$250,000,000||$868,160,194||23% / 63%|
|Suicide Squad||$175,000,000||$746,100,054||26% / 60%|
|Wonder Woman||$150,000,000||$817,012,815||92% / 88%|
|Justice League||$300,000,000||$655,902,594||40% / 76%|
*Ratings taken from Rotten Tomatoes
**Still in Theaters
I’ve only included the international numbers here, since that’s really what defines “success” and “failure” in modern Hollywood, but there is an important statistic in DC vs. Marvel here… Marvel has always made back the production budget on domestic results alone; DC has not (Justice League didn’t make it back, and MoS and BvS barely cleared it). It’s a lot of big numbers, but also very clear who’s doing better in every category.
With the most recent run of movies, it’s also a pretty amazing run of quality mixed in with the monetary return. When I think of other studios that have had similar runs, I liken Marvel to the output we got from Pixar between Toy Story II and Toy Story III (which includes greats like Wall-E and Up). Even the “down” movies in that lot are still good movies, and you see that in the MCU ratings overall.
Other genre films have been struggling, but it goes to show that Marvel movies in general have seemingly established their own brand. Things I didn’t include here, like Logan and Deadpool, had similarly great returns and reviews. Not coincidentally, both of those movies focused on the characters more than crazy effects and the costumes.
In short, DC keeps learning the wrong lesson it seems… it’s not that fans want to see more Comic Book movies (I think we can all agree that there are too many, even if we love them). People want to see a movie that has a good story and good characters, that make us engage with them and relate to what’s going on. DC seemingly sees “wow, superheroes make a lot of money” and think that alone will carry the film. It didn’t work in the 80s or 90s, and it’s not going to work now.
Interestingly, the old excuse of DC having to work harder, because everyone knows Superman and Batman, doesn’t hold up all that well at this point either. Spider-man was as big and well known, and Marvel showed they could not just work past that, but also create a movie without retelling the same intro story again. When the Disney/Fox deal closes, and the X-Men come home, it will be very interesting to see how that ends up getting worked into the bigger universe.
Where Can It Go?
In my opinion, the DC Extended Universe is just sort of listless; Snyder had a vision for the movies, but clearly, it wasn’t shared by the fans. It’s telling that the most successful film in the franchise was done by a relatively unknown director, Patty Jenkins. It was written by another unknown, Allan Heinberg, at least when it comes to movies (he’s done a lot of great comics work, like Young Avengers). It mixed a traditional voice and a woman’s view on a female character to great effect. DC has the template to do so much better, if they want to act on it.
I wasn’t entirely excited to see Joss Whedon put into Justice League (though have to assume we’d get a better product cause he can make something entertaining), but his moving away from the Batgirl movie opens up a chance for DC to do something great and repeat the template that made Black Panther and Wonder Woman so good. It should be a no brainer, given how great the Batgirl comic was (easily the highlight of the New 52 for me)… but I give even odds that they’ll just go make Killing Joke.
Likewise, I have hopes for Aquaman, because the actor has the charisma to carry it if they will let him. The problem is that a lot of the stories around the character have already been told by Marvel or will be told by Marvel in the very near future. I also have no idea if the Shazam! movie will be any good, but it stars Dwayne Johnson, and that’s usually good for at least two grades up. Plus, making him the bad guy is something I will pay to see.
On the Marvel side… I know that eventually they will release an absolute stinker. Their Cars 2 is somewhere out there (please don’t let it be Captain Marvel, please don’t let it be Captain Marvel, please…). But we’re getting Avengers: All the Thanos, Ant-Man & Wasp, Captain Marvel, and the “part 2” for Infinity War in the next two years and everything we’ve seen of them looks pretty awesome.
I haven’t watched Justice League yet… though I have it sitting in my queue for this weekend. I know it’s probably not good, I have friends who saw it and didn’t like it… but I still so desperately want it to be good. I want DC to hit, and I want things like Aquaman to be good (in no small part because I like Jason Mamoa a lot). Competition between studios making great films is good for everyone… for them and for viewers and fans. We deserve great Batman movies, and DC has so much that it can call on if they stop trying to chase the tights and focus on the stories. They have some very compelling characters they can call on, and lots of potential. We haven’t seen a Green Lantern yet, or any of the Young Justice types, or the good parts of Suicide Squad, or the Poison Ivy / Harley Quinn I think we all want…
In short, I don’t know if DC can fix this, but here’s hoping that the only direction they go is up.